This journey is a little different from most – a journey from death to life, if I may call it that. Or rather, it is a voyage of meaning, turning around the unexpected ramifications of Easter, of all things, after a death.
Easter had often been a weary, worn and empty time of the year for me. With bodily memories of short nights, midnight and dawn services hard after one another, of an emptiness as to what one might say, I was always thankful I was no longer in ministry when Easter came around. And I was puzzled at the way a supposedly once-off event, the pivot of history, the high point of revelation and salvation, had to be repeated, every year, ad nauseam. It was as though the old pagan celebration of the dying and rising god, the one that Christ’s death and resurrection had supposedly condemned to the dustbin of history, had returned with a vengeance. Rather than lifting himself above such annual cycles, he had become one more name in the legion of resurrected gods.
But two events set me on the road from this dreary point of origin. One was a prolonged bout of atrial fibrillation, which eventually passed with the assistance of a mild electrical shock. Not immediately fatal, it had the potential to lead to blood clotting in the heart; should it form, parts of that clot may break away and happily journey to one’s leg, arm or brain. It also meant my heart was not pumping blood efficiently, especially with exercise. This second-by-second reminder of my own mortality opened up – quite unexpectedly – an appreciation of that strange narrative of suffering, death and new life.
I found myself drawn to a liturgy, directed by an older priest with an extraordinary, almost shaman-like, ability to sense one’s immediate need and direct his attention there. The church was from my Reformed heritage, but through Lent I was there, usually at the simple and brief evening prayer on a weekday. By Palm Sunday I was part of the flow, participating in the harrowing experience of Maundy Thursday, joining the vigil for a short while, quietly slipping in for the stark Good Friday service, attending a renewal of baptismal vows with a small crowd on Saturday evening, and then joining the vast celebration of new life on the Sunday morning. Pomp and ceremony it was, far more than the simple story warranted; hints of cloying piety were there at odd moments. But the drama resonated in a way it had not done earlier.
At that Easter service were my father and mother, enjoying a stimulation of all the senses that was absent at their own church. By the following Easter my father was dying from cancer. To experience the death of someone intimately close, with whom I had argued and struggled and whom I had loved for a lifetime, to see him fade as the cancer took hold, to share with him in ways that had never happened before, to see him take his last unconscious breath, to see the pulse stop, to hear the rattle of internal fluids, to dress his body already stiff from rigor mortis before the funeral directors arrived, is to absorb death into one’s own life.
As he lay dying, he asked me: ‘How old are you?’
‘Forty eight’, I said.
‘I was forty seven when my father died’.
Unlike me, he had not been present, day by day, at that time, not even afterwards, for his father had died in the night from a stroke (perhaps brought on by that hereditary fibrillation – who knows?) and my father could not afford the trip, half way around the world, to the Netherlands for the funeral. His quiet regret at not having seen his father one last time had stayed with him for the rest of his life.
The following Easter, after we buried him that August, touched me even more deeply. I was drawn down, out and then up with the richness of the Easter cycle at the cathedral. At the recollections of the last supper and the austere moments of Good Friday I felt much greater sense of what it means to die, to breath one’s last and pass on. Throughout the quiet morning prayer at the cathedral on the Saturday (with one or two gathered, quietly reciting the prayers) I thought of my father. And he was very much present at the morning blast of music, colour, eucharist and sermon of Easter Sunday.
In the midst of the celebration, I recalled his of faith and fear, his hobbling presence the two Easters before. He may have been staunch in his faith, holding to it through a life of ups and downs. For all his assertions that he knew where he was going, my father also realised, with some trepidation, that he did not quite know all there was to be known about the destination or indeed the journey there.